Photo: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images.

Starbucks’ union busting efforts are failing

The coffee shop giant is trying to stop the union wave that started in Buffalo, but the pressure is becoming unbearable.


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Ever since a group of baristas began an organizing drive at a Starbucks location in Buffalo, New York last fall, the coffee giant has been actively engaging in an aggressive union-busting campaign that is sabotaging its positive public image.

Citing its health benefits, 401(k) match and college tuition benefits, the company has long touted that it is liberal-minded and provides employees with a worker-friendly environment.

But that claim is becoming less accurate as the company continues trying to squander its employees’s efforts to unionize their workplaces.

After nearly every worker at the Starbucks in Cheektowaga, New York signed cards asking for a union election, the company quickly shut down the store for two months, saying that it would be transformed into a training center.

The baristas were transferred to other locations, but the Cheektowaga workers knew the closing was really an excuse to undermine their pro-union solidarity, slow them down, and get them to resign.

After workers at multiple other Starbucks locations around NYC began petitioning, company headquarters shipped in dozens of out-of-town managers to work inside its Buffalo stores and shadow the employees, seemingly for no reason. 

Even the company’s president of retail for North America, Rossann Williams, was suddenly working side-by-side with ordinary baristas as they prepared and served macchiatos and cold brews. 

Unfortunately for Starbucks, these sneaky tactics did not suppress the movement. Since Buffalo workers became the first U.S. store to unionize in December 2021, more than 250 stores across the country have filed to unionize. 

Of the elections that have taken place already, more than 60 stores in over a dozen states, including two in Pennsylvania, have voted to unionize. 

So far, all the victorious stores have organized with Starbucks Workers United, which has more than 100,000 members. 

With the successes growing larger, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has resorted to tactics that are even more crude. On May 2, he announced that all non-union workers would be receiving sizable raises. 

“We do not have the same freedom to make these improvements at locations that have a union or where union organizing is underway," he said in a statement, adding that federal law "prohibits us from promising new wages and benefits at stores involved in union organizing."

Just two days later, Starbucks was hit with a major national lawsuit from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which charged the company labor rights violations, regarding its employee handbook. 

NLRB filed the lawsuit after Starbucks failed to respond to a proposed settlement over the harassment and firing of several pro-union workers at a store in Phoenix, Arizona. 

The suit takes issue with 19 different sections of the handbook, each of which are attempts to “interfere with, restrain and coerce employees in the exercise” of their right to form a union under the National Labor Relations Act. 

The agency is objecting to the company’s dress codes that prohibit workers from wearing any union paraphernalia on their shirts, pins or aprons. 

It’s also taking on the ban on video and audio editing and photography, the ban on social media and any unsanctioned interviews, and the company’s confidentiality rule.

All of these rules prevent workers from being able to document their working conditions, advocate for improvements and publicize their reasons for wanting to unionize. 

The NLRB has given Starbucks until May 18 to reply to the suit, and a court hearing has been scheduled for June 14. The company has also recently been hit with a NLRB injunction for illegally firing seven workers from a store in Memphis, Tennessee. 

Despite the company’s best efforts to subdue it, the steam behind the nationwide Starbucks union movement is not likely to fizzle out. 

Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University, told Vice that she doesn’t predict that the campaign will slow down anytime soon. 

“The pace of election filings and union victories is continuing. There are thousands more stores to go, including plenty more that haven’t filed or gone public in heavily unionized areas, college towns,” Givan said. 



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